WASHINGTON — The surprise decision by U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), one of the strongest advocates for NASA in Congress, not to run for re-election in 2016 triggered an outpouring of praise for her work but also concern about the effect her departure will have on the space agency’s funding.
Mikulski announced March 2 that she would not run for a sixth term in the Senate in 2016, a race she would have been the overwhelming favorite to win.
“This has been a hard decision to make,” the 78-year-old Mikulski said at a press conference in Baltimore held on only a few hours’ notice. She said she wanted to spend the next two years working in the Senate, rather than devoting time to fundraising and campaigning. She added that her decision was not based on any health issues or frustration with the Senate itself.
Mikulski serves as the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its commerce, justice, science (CJS) subcommittee, whose oversight includes NASA. Mikulski has served on the committee since she was first elected to the Senate in 1986.
Mikulski has used that position to become an influential figure in space policy, particularly for programs involving the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute, both located in Maryland. She has also supported NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, which is located in Virginia just south of the Maryland border and managed by Goddard.
“Senator Mikulski has been a tireless champion for NASA, and has helped pave the way for future exploration and our journey to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a March 2 statement. “Her candor, passion and vision will be greatly missed.”
“Senator Mikulski’s role in shaping NASA over more than two decades cannot be overstated,” Lori Garver, former NASA deputy administrator, said March 5. “She not only protected NASA’s overall top line but cared deeply about the specifics of the programs.”
That advocacy has helped programs both large and small. Mikulski has been a major supporter of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is still in development, seeking full funding for the astronomy flagship while pressuring NASA to improve its management after it suffered major schedule delays and cost overruns.
Several smaller programs, including a satellite servicing effort based at Goddard, have also benefited from her support in recent years.
“She gave her strongest backing to programs based at Goddard, and missions such as the Webb telescope quite simply would not have continued without her support,” Garver said.
Her advocacy, though, has not been strictly parochial. “Senator Mikulski has of course been a strong supporter of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center,” John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said March 4. “But that support has been embedded in a belief in the importance of NASA’s program to the nation and her concern that the United States maintains a vigorous space science and exploration effort overall.”
For example, she was instrumental in helping the International Space Station get off the ground despite programmatic difficulties and cost overruns that fueled deep skepticism about the program’s value in many corners of Capitol Hill.
Mikulski has worked closely in recent years with the top Republican on the CJS subcommittee, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), each supporting the other’s priorities, such as, in Shelby’s case, the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket. At a markup of the fiscal year 2015 spending bill in June 2014, she said she “listened to Sen. Shelby when he said we needed more money for the SLS rocket” than what the administration’s request provided. Both the Senate bill and the final fiscal year 2015 omnibus bill provided $1.7 billion for SLS, an increase of more than $300 million above the request.
“Senator Mikulski has been an incredibly impactful supporter of a robust and balanced space program, and not just those programs centered in her state,” said Frank Slazer, vice president of space systems at the Arlington, Virginia-based Aerospace Industries Association, which gave Mikulski its “Wings of Liberty” award in 2013.
While praising the support she provided to NASA, many in the space community also worried about the effect her departure will have. “A long list of favored projects that she directed to NASA will now have to look elsewhere for support,” Garver said.
None of the members likely to succeed Mikulski as the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, including Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), has shown an interest in the agency to the same degree as Mikulski. “I hope one of her senior Senate colleagues will take up that role, but she will certainly be missed,” Logsdon said of Mikulski.
The race in Maryland to succeed Mikulski in the Senate could have other implications for space policy. Among the potential candidates for Mikulski’s seat is Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Science space subcommittee. Edwards has not publicly stated that she is weighing a run for the Senate, but if she does run, she would not be able to simultaneously seek re-election to the House.
Some are hopeful that whoever succeeds Mikulski will also be willing to advocate for the space agency. “After all,” Slazer said, “who would have predicted that a neighborhood civic activist and social worker, such as Mikulski, would turn out to be such a powerful champion for space?”
Mikulski, while not directly addressing space policy at her March 2 press conference, did indicate she would be focused on working for her constituents through the end of her term, which the space community hopes will translate into continued support for NASA in the fiscal year 2016 and 2017 budgets.
“To all the people of Maryland and even those around the country who are watching or listening now,” she said at the press conference, “remember, for the next two years I will be here, working the way I do, 100 percent.”